He Has Debt. You Don’t. How to Protect Your Marriage

You know that money fights are a leading source of breakups. And these days, many of those clashes are likely to be about debt. So what do you do if your partner has massive law school loans, say, or other outstanding debts—and you don’t?

Here’s how to bridge the debt divide without damaging your union.

Put debt in perspective. Once you’re both aware of the debt, couch it in terms of your future plans. Debt isn’t simply a numbers game, a win-lose scenario: it’s about deciding how quickly it should be paid off; how the debt might impact other goals; where debt falls on the map of your priorities.

Be careful what you say. “For the good of the relationship, you may want to view the situation as, ‘We have debt together,’” recommends Matt Bell, author of Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples. That means referring not to “your” debt but “ours,” even if, technically, it’s your spouse who is in the red.

You may not like the idea, but the reality is that unless your mate has a separate income stream that they can put toward debt without affecting the household budget, you’re going to be involved somehow, so you might as well be proactive.

Also, by using inclusive language, you’ll ease your mate’s potential fears that you’ll leave, be judgemental, or check out emotionally. And by signaling that you’re a team, you’ll set the stage for a cooperative get-out-of-debt plan.

(Of course, in some cases, your partner may want to deal with their debt separately—out of pride or fiscal sanity. If that’s the case, it’s even more important to be clear about each person’s priorities.)

Keep your own credit clean. Being supportive doesn’t mean your credit has to suffer. In most cases, even if you’re married, creditors can’t come after you for your partner’s debt. Just make sure you keep it that way. Don’t transfer some or all of the balance into your name, or make the card into a joint account.
Bump up his credit. Boost your ability to buy a house or a car down the line by authorizing your partner as a user on one or two of your cards (if it has a low balance). It will let credit reporting bureaus know that he has a lower credit to debt ratio—and it won’t affect your own score, Bell says.

Not that your mate should actually use the card–the idea is to keep the balance low while increasing his available credit, which will help his credit score. Genius.

Invest in life insurance. In some states, if your spouse dies, you may be held responsible for his debt, regardless of whose name it’s in. To guard against this remote possibility, be sure you both have life insurance. Surviving spouses have an unthinkably hard path without having to pay off old loans or credit cards.

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